Random swipes on a dating app for crisis-aged fools like us tipped Olivia and me off. She was newly single; I was chronically so. Friends had introduced us back when, and we went out—modern art plus hip Mexican dinner at a dark cafe lit only by glowing sombreros. We laughed a lot; I liked her sass; I knew I was in love.
But the “friends” had other ideas. Drunk at the party I hosted for Olivia’s birthday, they separately cajoled each of us the other was too cunning. Olivia married a jerk. I became one (and a total wreck). Call me crazy, but I’ve waited all this time, through her marriage, kids, divorce, loneliness, and by sheer chance, grinding parallel lives as ER nurses, for Olivia to walk through my door this balmy spring eve.
We liplessly press cheeks, Olivia kicks off her sneakers, nestles into my sofa, surveys my reformed terrain with eyes more stunning beneath her bob for their soft ripples of pale purple below.
My cockroach-n-dope days, when owning a sofa proved a life, redecorating meant cleaning, and my life possessions summed clothes, a toothbrush, a moka pot, and a Go set (still on proud display mid-game dead center of a reclaimed tree stump) were over. My dojo/brothel mashup, stark lines tilling beige and tatami green girding plush velour, perhaps weird, is at least habitable: furniture, gourmet cutlery, plants, and the bed that mercifully suffocated my air mattress.
How long has it been, Tal?
Since we’ve seen each other?
No, since you started the Go game. Your best move now would be the feather duster.
Olivia’s sass doesn’t stab—she’s right, the ER stopped my Go. I pull the promised crostini from the oven, shake and strain Manhattans, put on a CD. Jeff Buckley skips down till he sounds like Snoop Dogg.
We settle on Roison Murphy, perfect for innocuous reminiscing over food and drink.
Our chat gets flirty. Phones cast aside, hands flutter across thighs and shoulders before swarming napes of necks—our sudden kiss is heady, our first time together, umami, and Olivia is still here. Lucky for me, she hasn’t pulled that squeamy maneuver I had turned into an art form: bolting.
Later I thrash around in bed sweating off the liquor caught in a Roisin Murphy matrix, “If We’re in Love” skipping on repeat. What then, what then . . . Olivia sleeps unperturbed, the sheet curled into her fists, the little packages tucked under her chin, at peace.
When I can’t sleep, I often ponder the innards of my closet, a fraught place of clutter and memories. Naked inside now, I brood over a worn shoebox crammed with unrequited love letters, unrequited because I never sent them . . . to Olivia. But there’s no time for remorse or nostalgia, because Bluto, my curmudgeonly neighbor’s glum brindle rescue Boxmas (and my fellow insomniac) wants in. Bluto softly mewls as he tries to burrow in from his master’s closet into mine, perhaps pining for me as I did and do for Olivia. If dogs could speak, what might this one say? Homo erectus! The old man’s gonna be my end! Take me in! Please?
Every day, Bluto drags his thick leash up alone to our high floor, his owner shuffling far behind for fear of tripping on the way up and breaking his shins on the way down as he juggles his armfuls of Snapple and bulletproof-glass Chinese takeout while Bluto hasn’t enjoyed a good buck bone in years. Bluto’s daily girthful slams against my door and the thin wall separating the landing from my shower, his scream for help. Now he senses me with another, snorts and yowls when I return to her. When I slip back into bed, Olivia stirs awake.
Closet more interesting than me?
Women always know.
In a way, the closet is you. Sweet dreams.
Didn’t know you had a dog.
I don’t. Long story.
Long story. Right.
She wraps my hand into the comfy package under her chin and goes back to sleep.
Olivia’s presence is spectacularly simple. Simplicity is what we both need, the best analgesic for strife—the gunshot and stab wounds, overdoses and hypochondria, falls and leaps, crashes, beatings, and burns, and the complicated rest of what we endure. I roll over and take my own pulse. It’s high. Nurses always know, even from within. Now I’ve forgotten the gesture of the gentleman: the nighttime glass of water for his love. I fill a glass for her at the kitchen sink, deflate when my warped reflection on the spigot returns haggard. Back in bed, I shake off my wan image as Olivia hydrates.
Thought you’d forget. My ex-husband always did.
Do you even know me?
Olivia stares at me, and I love it. She closes her eyes, pats my glutenous paunch (stress-eating, pizza) and doesn’t recoil. Women’s tolerance makes every man lucky.
The early traffic swashes like distant breaching whales. Our socks and underwear amid pink-and-honey specks of dawn on the floor frolic far more obscenely than we did. I pull back the curtain on morning: vivid colors on the fire escape, the iridescence of pigeon necks. Olivia’s flipped some switch in me. I alight to the kitchen to make her Spanish eggs.
Didn’t know you were one of those pleasers. Come hold me until the alarm goes off.
I turn off the gas and head back, holding Olivia until we’re stopped by the latest ping!
We had fun, Tal.
Yes, we did.
We stare at each other until one of us blinks. We laugh and start kissing again.
Olivia slinks into the kitchen behind me wearing my shirt like a dress. Her arms lasso my torso as I sear the eggs crispy. The espresso pot screams, we breakfast on the sofa, the coffee tastes good. We both know she can have as much of me as she wants, but it can’t work the other way around. Jobs, kids, ex-husband—Go—love always reckons.
Wish you’d stay.
I can’t. I’m meeting the kids at the park. The older one is teaching the younger one how to play frisbee—pway fwisbee, the younger one says. So cute—then I gotta work a double.
Ouch. What are your kids’ names?
Are you high? I’m not telling you my kids’ names.
I’m only curious.
Oh yeah? Curious this!
Olivia pulls me into another heady kiss.
Shower to freshen up?
Perfect! But I’ll shower alone. The kids.
She play-slaps my face.
Olivia’s shower gives me time to dress and slip a letter from the closet into her purse, a love grenade to be defused later. Maybe I am high.
She exits the bathroom in sweat clothes brushing her teeth, last night’s garb in a bag. At the door, she laces up her sneakers, texts someone, the someone texts back.
The sitter brought my kids here.
Yeah. They’re downstairs. I’d never find them in the park.
The lock’s still broken and the buzzer never works. Loud clomping echoes up the stairwell.
My daughter’s wearing her boots.
Boots for frisbee?
I already can’t control her—and she hasn’t learned how to toss the frisbee to her brother yet either, she tosses it . . . wherever.
Olivia’s chin buckles with each ascending clomp.
Olivia, I’m not sure if I’m ready to meet—
An orange blur wobbles onto the landing, chased by two rambunctious kids, a boy and a girl. Too late. Olivia lunges forward with hugs.
For a sec, we ignore our phones and marvel at the former pie tin, that old plastic wonder, the frisbee. Olivia whips around to me.
What are your big plans for today, Tal?
Not the slightest, off till next week.
Olivia’s son is a skinny older tween handsome for his age but sacked by his favorite football jersey. Flip flops fish around his feet and his longish hair lashes his eyes, causing a little tic as he blows it away. Olivia’s daughter is a bashful mini-Olivia in a flower dress, far from gray in her matching bob, a few years younger than her brother. They make a lovely triangular family, lovelier for its absence of Olivia’s deadbeat ex-husband the jerk. A little raw, I extend my hand to the boy.
The kid’s ribs sharpen in his jersey, but there’s no puff. Maybe next year. He kicks at his ankles and glares at me.
You’re not ta—eee—tall enough to be a Tal.
Nice try, sport. In a way, he’s right, even with a larynx desperately squeaking for teenhood. I shrug off her son’s jab with a wink at his mom. Olivia reaches over to tousle her son’s hair more than it is already.
Sebastian! That’s not nice.
No names, right?
Olivia smirks at me and now it’s her nameless daughter’s turn.
Mistuh, you ah cweepee.
Stella! Sorry, Tal. ‘Creepy’s her new favorite word.
Mom, let’s go!
Stella’s sassy like her mom. She fidgets with the orange object in her hands and can’t stop giggling. The kids pull Olivia onto the stairs. She sighs up at me, teetering between her kids as they march her down, Stella clomping ahead, Sebastian kicking his ankles behind. I sigh and teeter, too, how their mother smelled after all that bitters and sweat, lilies and sandalwood to my angostura and rye. The Manhattans might’ve been a fluke, but we loved our town.
I linger in the doorway until the clomps subside, dreading I’ll never see Olivia again. Dread never makes anyone feel better. Sex can, for a while.
There’s the vacuum rush of the main door downstairs opening and closing, then opening and closing again, then a metallic sound like nails across concrete and heavy labored breathing chased up the stairwell by a badly off-key tune.
I leave the door open and wait on the sofa—not for Olivia, but for heartbreak’s best friend—Bluto trots in dragging his leash. He sniffs around for you know who before gluing himself to the floor at my feet. Panting off his frustration, he knits his brow like Brando at the height of his yearning in the back of the taxi in On the Waterfront: “It ain’t my night!” Ain’t never been Bluto’s night, poor turmoiled thing.
I pamper Bluto with strokes and pat his head. His whole being wags. He basks in me as I bask in visions of Olivia playing at the park with her kids. ER carnage makes frisbee seem like what the childhood ads brainwashed us it was: Ultimate Fun.
Glum quadrupeds deserve steak. Before I can make Bluto one, outside my door twenty minutes in, the curmudgeon’s heinous rendition of “Some Enchanted Evening” obliterates this bound-for-boredom afternoon. The curm codas his “tune” with a call to his dog.
Blu-u-u-to-o-o. Good boy, where are you?
Even Bluto’s cringing. He chaws his tail and plods out my door without even a lick of goodbye. I perch on the sofa and watch the philodendron grow.
Then, hope. Olivia texts: Hey cweep [Blushing Smiley Face] come pway fwisbee to wherever with us at the park [Blushing Smiley Face].
How can I say no.